“Cracker Island” Is Yet Another Installment in a Series of Unmemorable Gorillaz Releases
This article was originally published on Respect My Region
It’s rare to find someone who outright dislikes Gorillaz. The passion surrounding the current product, however, is slowly dwindling among younger audiences who didn’t grow up amid the collective awe of the first three albums. Since then, the virtual demon outfit has steadily released a string of not-as-remarkable (notice the conscious decision to avoid “unremarkable”) singles, EPs and full-length albums. Still, they have remained relevant and widely admired for maintaining a safe standard that die-hard fans have grown accustomed to. By “they,” of course, we mean him: Damon Albarn, the sonic mastermind behind said project alongside cartoonist Jamie Hewlett.
Ever since he shifted his focus from leading the 90s Britpop movement as the frontman of Blur, Albarn has worked on a diverse range of material under different names. From joining forces with musicians around the world to forming multiple supergroups to an understated solo run, he has established himself as a professional shapeshifter and one-man collaborative powerhouse. Damon Albarn is, without question, a standout creative genius, and it’s important to establish this before we dissect his latest release.
Gorillaz is the perfect outlet for a focused scatterbrain like Albarn because the concept has no binding narrative. The animation alone holds together a loose theme of a group of demons embarking on different quests. Considering its flexible nature, he has the freedom to soundtrack it however he wishes — no constraints whatsoever.
That is precisely why Cracker Island, like the four albums that preceded it, feels like yet another missed opportunity. The Gorillaz–Demon Days–Plastic Beach trifecta is arguably one of the most memorable three-album runs of all time, and not just of the modern era. It exhibited Albarn’s immense wingspan, setting a new standard for how much an artist can accomplish within one body of work. Throughout the 2000s, he worked across genres, eras and borders with a cohesion that we haven’t seen in the form of an album ever since; only the occasional song here and there.
Albarn put out four Gorillaz albums in the 2010s: The Fall, Humanz, The Now Now and the singles compilation, Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez. On paper, these are perfectly in-character Gorillaz records — a deep roster of collaborators, colorful yet dark themes and the cinematic allure that distracts from how the music is agreeably all over the place. But once you listen to these four records as well as the singles and EPs peppered in between them, their memory simply doesn’t persist. Cracker Island is the fifth consecutive album to fall into this pattern.
Here’s the extraordinary thing about Albarn: even though he’s been indulging in the same synth-centered compositions for a decade-plus, his work never gets boring. For someone relatively new to the Gorillaz Cinematic Universe or those listening for the first time, Cracker Island will most likely sound like a decent album. Then there’s the rest of us who’ve been waiting to be blown away by an assortment of sounds and styles that have been noticeably absent for a while now.
The majority of the tracks on the new record trace back to high-quality songwriting, but their texturing is unadventurous for the most part. That is to say the way they were formatted and processed through tried-and-tested templates has dulled their potential. It comes as no surprise, then, that one of the album’s biggest pulls was a crossover with Tame Impala, an act with a similar career arc. For Albarn, though, this move feels particularly anticlimactic and underwhelming. He is a master of the studio and all the things you could possibly fit inside it. Considering he made a name for himself as a creative with no limits, it feels like he could’ve taken a few more steps to prevent the new record from blurring into the previous ones.
If you took the best two-to-three songs from the last five Gorillaz albums, you’d have an appropriate follow-up to their debut hat trick. Instead, Albarn made the mistake of putting out too much material too fast, with too many throwaway cuts that serve no real purpose besides existing. That aside, there’s something to be said about the highlights of even his least memorable albums, because they always demonstrate what could have been.
From just looking at the newest tracklist, multiple songs stand out as potential high points for those taking a guess. Is it Albarn harmonizing with Fleetwood Mac matriarch Stevie Nicks? Could it be him taking the backseat while reggaeton sweetheart Bad Bunny takes over? Or is it him and fellow metamorph Beck seamlessly merging into one on the album’s tender closer? The last two certainly make the shortlist, but the Gorillaz solo effort “Skinny Ape” serves as the perfect reminder of Albarn doing the most and getting it right. Stringy opening, silky vocals and whimsical transitions topped by what can only be described as a hyperpop closing act with punky chants — it’s everything Gorillaz represents, which is essentially everything!
Unfortunately, the music is not as fun anymore because it has a dominant pattern. Albarn has a track record of not only trying new recipes but perfecting them in his own unique way, which is why it’s confusing that he has chosen to stick to one for so long.
Cracker Island begs the following question: why does a project like Gorillaz, the essence of which was scoffing at labels, even have a core sound?